What could a cancer patient in Al Hafayer, in Saudi Arabia’s eastern province, and a stem cell researcher at Harvard University Medical School on the east coast of the United States have in common?
The latter would perhaps be poring over data about the former, the two strangers offering each other anonymous assistance through a link in Riyadh. A new biotechnology park has been set up in the capital city to forge links between biomedical research in the kingdom and commercial opportunities.
“We have a huge infrastructure for biomedical research.We have put in a lot of investment.The only thing that was missing was turning research into commercial diagnostic and therapeutic tools,” says Abdelali Haoudi, head of strategy and business development at King Abdullah International Medical Research Center (KAIMRC). By establishing its biotech park, KAIMRC is looking to plug the gap.
KAIMRC’s efforts are part of a wider trend, across the kingdom and the region, of concerted attempts at tapping into the commercial potential of scientific research.More than three dozen technology parks have sprung up in rapid succession over the past decade — from Jeddah and Doha to Muscat and Casablanca — according to a tally by a UN agency.
Riyadh’s new biotech park, with access to research results and patient data from far-flung corners of the kingdom, is charting its own path. It aims to set itself apart by zeroing in on a relatively small set of diseases, championing sustainable and mutually beneficial partnerships, and by taking advantage of the patient data uniquely available to it from the large medical ecosystem of hospitals and clinics that KAIMRC belongs to.
A small number of big-time ailments
Technology parks may be prone to overreaching when they direct limited resources in disparate directions. Aware of this risk, the architects of KAIMRC’s park have established a “less is more” vision when it comes to the diseases that will receive the bulk of energy and resources.
The park will focus only on a handful of diseases from each of the five most locally ubiquitous health conditions: cancer, diabetes, infectious diseases, cardiovascular diseases and neurological diseases. In the cancer category, for example, only leukaemia, lymphoma, and colorectal and breast cancers will be targeted.There were two factors for selection: a high rate of incidence in Saudi Arabia; and the extent of research expertise available to KAIMRC and its network of partners and affiliates.
“We cannot afford to do more than that,” explains Haoudi, a geneticist by training who moved into the area of science policy, with career stints in France, the United States and most recently Qatar.
Playing to strength
KAIMRC, established in 2006, is part of the larger medical research and care system that is King Abdulaziz Medical City. With headquarters in Riyadh, the medical city has offshoots in Al Ahsa, the kingdom’s eastern province, and Jeddah, in the western province.
Each of the three campuses undertakes three functions: medical care through hospitals, teaching through medical colleges, and biomedical research through KAIMRC facilities in each location. The number of hospitals or colleges varies from campus to campus, with Riyadh’s being the largest. The medical city system was founded and is run by the health affairs department at the Ministry of National Guard.
Through this ecosystem, KAIMRC, as well as its new biotech park, has access to growing and fresh troves of patient data from across the kingdom. This will help in routinely monitoring the prevalence and nature of the park’s designated focus disease areas.
Such a wealth of patient data, saysHaoudi, makes the new park more attractive to academic and pharmaceutical partners than many other science and technology parks in the region.
Extensive patient data, along with research-enabling facilities and expertise will also make for mutually beneficial partnerships. KAIMRC’s park would seem a natural ally for a pharmaceutical company or an academic researcher interested in the particular profile of a type of diabetes or cancer in Saudi Arabia or the Gulf.
For the park, whose operations are planned to start in earnest next fall, such partnerships can channel the ingenuity of researchers from prestigious institutions to develop products and services that address local and regional health issues.
This mode of partnership —where parties are brought together by shared interest in the same medical puzzle, with each contributing something unique —is more sustainable, says Haoudi.
KAIMRC is already finalizing partnership agreements with Harvard Medical School and Harvard Stem Cell Institute in the US and Oxford University in the UK.
Discussions are also ongoing with a biotech firm interested in the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV), a viral disease that was discovered in Saudi Arabia in 2012, where it has also caused the highest number of fatalities.
The spirit at KAIMRC’s new park is properly entrepreneurial: not only in the sense of breathing new life into the “development” part of “research and development,” but in recasting the kingdom’s health challenges as opportunities. From such a vantage point, every intractable medical puzzle is an occasion to bring together and forge collaborations with the best minds inside and outside Saudi Arabia, benefiting the kingdom, and enhancing its place as part of the global science enterprise.
“Science, by its nature, knows no borders,” says Haoudi.“And the more we embrace science’s openness, the better off we are as a society and the better science’s outcomes get.” A sentiment perhaps shared by those strangers in Al Hafayer and Harvard.